Lessons in AstroTurf: Balanced Copyright for Canada | Cardinal Path Blog
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Lessons in AstroTurf: Balanced Copyright for Canada

The Internet has been a fantastic tool for grassroots movements who have seen great success creating campaigns online. However, with this success inevitably comes large organizations who want to duplicate it. Canada’s most recent example of this has popped up around the new copyright bill, C-32. A group calling themselves “Balanced Copyright for Canada”.

Balanced Copyright for Canada (from here on out referred to as ‘BCC’) is a ‘movement’ funded by the CRIA and “advised” by media industry executives. It’s ideology is straightforward: increase copyright control for IP holders. Its goal? To turn convince people that Canada requires new copyright law, including provisions against breaking Digital Rights Management software. Their website, Balancedcopyrightforcanada.ca, encourages visitors to show their support for such changes in the law via some very interesting social design. But as of last week, the movement was de-fanged by critics after revealing its record industry ties.

The failure of BCC wasn’t in its admission of industry ties, but rather its attitude towards building community online: it set out to construct and control a movement, rather than allowing it to grow on its own. They hid their intentions behind registration, cut short non-supportive conversation, and limited who was allowed to engage. In short, instead of forming (in their words) “a coalition of content creators, artists and rights holders… who believe that Canada needs to move into the digital age on its legislation governing copyright”, they constructed a facade.

In this post I’m going to take apart their movement and look at what their aims were, how they achieved them, what they did wrong, and what they could have done.

The Good

1. Great calls-to-action

BCC prominently displays a set of action items, encouraging (logged in) visitors to engage. Getting users to voice their support of the new copyright bill is their primary purpose, and their entire site centers on big loud calls-to-action to get users to show support.

2. Engaging Action Items

Beyond visibility, their calls to action directly encourage users to engage with crucial ways, including posting comments supportive of the bill in the comment sections of critical articles, and encouraging members to support articles that demand stricter copyright.

3. Foster commitment via written public statements

BCC encourages users to email their MP. This likely won’t even get to their MP, but it forces them to somewhat publicly state that they agree with the site. It’s a great idea, but unfortunately they use a form email that the user can not customize, so it may not achieve that goal as well as it could.

All in all BCC is organized like they’re trying to build an army (which no doubt they are), using engagement and gaming mechanics to encourage people to take action.

The Bad

1. No commenting:

You may remember Michael Straker’s blog post on how comments, even bad ones, can increase sales? BCC’s website allows comments, but submitting one left me with the message that all comments must be approved. Sure enough, it was never posted.

At first I thought that they didn’t like my comment, but looking back over their site there don’t seem to be any comments on the site, which leaves me thinking that perhaps they just never get around to approving them.

Comments are a crucial factor in engaging users. Sure, people may leave comments critical of your perspective (in fact, they will) but that’s just an opportunity to restate your case, or even better to let your fans state it for you.

2. Registration required to see action items

I assume they did this so that the average Joe wouldn’t see some of their more spammy action items. However, this also prevents potential supporters who haven’t registered from following their action items.

3. Banning members who were there for non-supportive reasons.

This kind of action adds to an air of secrecy and dishonesty, and discourages the kind of dialog that people need to build meaningful connections in a social space. As long as they aren’t being disruptive, allowing other’s opinions builds trust, and gives your community a chance to fight on your behalf, which helps unify community, fortify supporters opinions, and shows that people support you.

The Ugly:

Enticing visitors to action often requires a level of trust (think ‘PET’). From the immediately obvious, but unspoken ties to the recording industries—finally admitted at the behest of critics such as Michael Geist—to Facebook pages suspiciously populated with overzealous individuals who just happen to all be from the same area outside of Ottawa, the whole movement reeked of AstroTurf offgassing in the heat of the sun.
The Facelift:

Hindsight is, as they say, the perfect science. balancedcopyrightforcanada.ca is a hard sell, but there were a few things that they could have done to improve their chances of being effective:

1. Be honest

Sure the CRIA and RIAA (and IFPA) are pretty unpopular right now (especially in Canada), and there will always be a desire to distance a movement from that organization, but doing so without actually distancing yourself from them is a dangerous line to walk. Instead, perhaps they could have gotten an association member with a powerful brand to have spearheaded the project, say Sony running it with a couple of popular musicians supporting their viewpoint. Or even better, get a small label to make the case.

2. Open action items

Don’t prevent potential supporters from engaging by hiding action items behind a registration link. Call on the general public to support your position, and act with you. If you’re worried that people might get up in arms about what you’re calling for then don’t call for it.

3. Encourage users to write their own emails (or modify a template email), and prominently display them on the site

This would not only serve as testimonials for the movements support, but it would directly engage users, making their opinions public and helping foster exuberance for the movement. It also helps with both the bandwagon effect and creating commitment.

4. Avoid poor headlines in the “Latest News”.

Right now their leading story is “Pirates are killing musicians, composers, lyricists, even popcorn vendors”. This kind of hyperbole as the leading headline on the front page is going to drive away more moderate visitors.

5. More user generated content

Besides being great for business goals, prominently displaying user generated content (messages of support on Twitter, Facebook, etc.) gives the impression that people agree with you, helping create a bandwagon effect.

Conclusion

Grassroots movements rely on passion and participation, something that BCC understood quite well. What they missed, however, was that persuading users to join your cause is hindered when you’re not being upfront about who you are. With a handful of decisions that hid their intents, blocked honest debate, and obfuscated who they were, BCC set themselves up for failure.

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